Resilient Servants: How Persecution Led to Radical Growth of the Iranian Church

By Chelsea Rollman, Jun 18, 2024

It is illegal to convert to Christianity in Iran.

As one of four Islamic Republics in the world, the theocratic government closely regulates all aspects of life to ensure the people adhere to Sharia law. All ethnic Iranians are Muslim by birth. Converting to Christianity is a crime equivalent of treason. There are no visible Christian congregations, and the Bible is outlawed.

Yet by His miraculous power, God has used these conditions to pave the way for Christianity to flourish among the Iranian people. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have come to faith in Christ, making the Iranian Church the fastest growing in the world.

The Paradox of Persecution

Neither MTW missionary Martin Lee* nor his friend Kamran* could have imagined the explosive growth that was about to happen in the Iranian Church when they met 20 years ago. Martin was attending a conference in the Middle East to explore a call to missions to the Persian world. Kamran, who was training at the local Bible school to be a pastor, introduced himself to Martin at the conference.

Kamran explained that his father was a Muslim convert who became a Christian. His father served as a pastor for many years until the government arrested him in the 1990s after launching a crackdown on Christianity. They targeted Muslim converts and sought to make an example of Kamran’s father.

He was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed by hanging.

His father’s martyrdom inspired Kamran to pursue ministry himself. He wanted to take his father’s place. He became a pastor and has walked the same road of persecution as his father. For the past 20 years, government authorities have targeted Kamran. They have physically threatened and arrested him many times. On several occasions, they threw him into solitary confinement. Eventually, the threats became so severe that Kamran realized he would not be able to continue ministering inside Iran. He and his family fled to a neighboring country, unable to ever return to their home.

Kamran’s story is common. Iran is one of the harshest persecutors of Christians in the world, often ranking in the top 10 on Open Doors’ “World Watch List.” Since the 1979 revolution the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah and established the Islamic Republic, Christians have been watched and monitored. Today, all churches are underground. The Islamic government does everything in its power to squelch all Christian activity. If a Christian is caught, there is a possibility they or their families will be interrogated, arrested, beaten, and even tortured.

Yet, as is the case with so many examples in Church history, extreme persecution has led to the growth of the Iranian Church. Despite the danger, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have come to faith in the past decade. Ironically, one of the primary means God is using to open their hearts to the truth of the gospel is the government.

When Khomeini established Iran as an Islamic Republic, the new government promised Islam would bring prosperity and dignity back to Iran after the corruption and social problems the country experienced under the Shah. They have dramatically failed to deliver on these promises. This has left the people disillusioned not only with their government, but also with Islam itself. Much of the population went searching for alternatives to the religion of their oppressive government.

According to Martin, the vast majority of the population is opposed to Islam, and many of them are open to Christianity and they are encountering the gospel in myriad ways. They use the internet, social media, radio, and satellite TV to access Western Christian programs. God often uses dreams to direct them to a church or to Scripture. And perhaps most significantly, they learn the truth about Jesus through the witness of other Christians.

Making Disciples Through Courageous Encounters

Shortly after the conference where he met Kamran, Martin and his wife moved to Europe where Martin pastored an Iranian refugee church. After five years in Europe, the Lees returned to the States so that Martin could get a master’s in Farsi. They then moved to the Middle East to train Iranian pastors and church leaders ministering both in Iran and in neighboring countries. During his 18 years of serving among Iranians, Martin has observed and been part of the radical gospel advancement in the Persian world.

While pastoring the refugee church in Europe, Martin developed a close friendship with his language partner—an Iranian man who attended church but did not believe Jesus was the Son of God. This man, like most Muslims, had respect for Jesus but only knew Him as a great prophet.

“My friend was a little older than me. In Persian culture, you can’t tell someone older than you that they are wrong. You have to show them respect,” said Martin. “So instead of me telling him that he was wrong, I wanted to allow the Bible to show him.”

Martin suggested they read the gospel of John together. For about one month, they met every week and read five chapters at a time. As they studied together, Martin would point out different places in John that illuminated Jesus’ identity—His miracles, His proclamations that peoples’ sins were forgiven, and the Pharisees’ anger at Jesus because of who He claimed to be. By the end of the month, Martin’s friend was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God. He was baptized in Martin’s church a few months later.

“It’s not a really dramatic story … but it’s dramatic for Iranians because they have never read the Bible before. They have never even seen a Bible before. Every story that we went through was the first time in his life that he is reading that story,” explained Martin.

He continued saying, “For Americans you read about one of Jesus’ miracles and you’re like ‘Yeah, that’s nice. I’ve heard that story,’ but for Iranians they’re like, ‘Whoa! That’s amazing! I didn’t know that Jesus could do that.’”

Martin has also seen Christians in Iran courageously live as a witness for Christ. One woman Martin knows regularly goes to the bazaar and meets strangers to get a sense of their spiritual openness. Often, she bravely shares the gospel during that first meeting. Martin has met and trained two other women that this woman has brought to Christ this way. He also knows a taxi driver who meets his house church members at a park. They walk around encouraging one another in their faith and spend time praying in his taxi.

God is also using the context of persecution to mobilize Iranian Christians. Whenever Christians like Kamran flee the country, they do not stop ministering for Christ. “Where these Christian refugees are going out all over Europe, they are sharing the gospel and bringing Iranians to Christ and forming Iranian Christian groups,” said Martin.

The Urgent Need for Sound Teaching

Last year, Martin and Kamran reconnected for the first time in 18 years at a theological training event Kamran organized for Farsi-speaking church leaders. They met in the region with around a group of other attendees, all of whom currently serve a house church in areas subject to persecution. They came to hear Martin teach.

A large part of Martin’s work is hosting training events like these for Iranian church leaders. The marvelous and dramatic rate at which Iranians are converting to Christianity has left a huge need for equipped leaders. Martin has been working on theological education and leadership development for the Persian church for 18 years. He said that the more he gets into it, the more barriers he faces.

The initial problem is access. “If someone wants to be a pastor, they are pretty much on their own. Just them, their Bible, and whatever they see on satellite TV,” said Martin. Many of the resources they can access are full of false teaching and heresy.

Then there is the problem of contextualization. Even the good materials come out of a Western setting. They aren’t preparing Iranian leaders for underground church ministry in Iran. Martin’s main focus at the moment is addressing this issue, working with national partners to produce doctrinally sound and contextualized online resources in Farsi.

“Because the situation for ministry is different under persecution, because it’s different coming from an Islamic background … our theological education has to adjust to that,” said Martin. “A lot of seminary training we do in the West is preparing people to minister in a secular environment … so it’s a different type of training that they need. The threat is not secular liberal theology. Their threat is Islam. Even Christians are coming from an Islamic background and so they need to be trained how to teach in that context.”

Finally, there are the physical threats. About seven months after the theological training event, Martin learned that three of the women who attended the conference were arrested.

“It’s just another level among the barriers,” Martin explained emotionally. “Just getting [leaders] something. And then getting them something they can use. And then getting them to use it without getting arrested.”

But Martin and other Christians working in the Persian world know that though the challenges are great, our God is greater. The global Church has an immense opportunity to double down and invest in the Iranian Church through prayer and service. Against all odds, God is miraculously calling thousands, if not millions, of Iranians throughout the world to faith in Jesus. These new Christians are hungry to grow in their faith and know Christ better. They love Jesus. For them, Jesus is the one who defends the weak. Jesus was the one who was Himself persecuted. He is the one who stood up to religious oppressors. They are ready to follow in His sacrificial footsteps. At great cost to themselves, they are boldly worshipping Christ and preaching the gospel to make Jesus’ name known throughout Iran and the world.

*Names and certain details changed for security purposes.

Explore ways to serve in the Muslim World at

Chelsea Rollman

Chelsea Rollman is a marketing specialist and staff writer at MTW. She formerly served as the girls’ discipleship coordinator at Village Seven in Colorado Springs, and as a marketing assistant at The White Horse Inn. Chelsea graduated from Covenant College in 2016 with her B.A. in English. She and her husband, Hudson, live in Jacksonville, Florida, and attend Christ Church Presbyterian where Hudson serves as the youth director.

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